For decades, Greg Zanis has been traveling across the U.S. to place crosses at some of the most heartbreaking scenes the nation has faced.
But 27,000 crosses later, the Aurora, Illinois, native has given up the job that gave him a grim but powerful purpose for so many years.
“I love what I’m doing, but I’m getting called every day to go to 10 shootings,” he said.
Zanis, the founder of Crosses for Losses, has found himself staring down some of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history. His self-proclaimed duty to place markers bearing the names of shooting victims at the scenes of their deaths has taken him to Sandy Hook Elementary School, Columbine High School and Stoneman Douglas High School. It has sent him traveling to Orlando, El Paso, Dayton, Las Vegas and, earlier this year, back to his hometown in Illinois.
“I can’t tell you how devastated I was. My own town,” he said.
There, five people were killed when an employee about to lose his job opened fire inside the Henry Pratt Co. warehouse.
At 69 years old, Zanis said he found himself carrying a load he never imagined.
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“I felt like I was carrying the weight of the whole country on my shoulders,” he said.
Zanis’ work has received mixed messages over the years, with some welcoming his crosses as touching tributes and others criticizing that they make the scenes appear more like a cemetery.
But his message remains the same.
“These are people, they’re not numbers,” Zanis said. “It’s not gay people in Orlando. It’s not Sikhs in Milwaukee, it’s not Jewish people in Pennsylvania, it’s not black people in Chicago. This is our country. We’re a family. We’re American first.”
Zanis stopped making his crosses beginning Nov. 21.
“I just feel that 27,000 crosses later, it’s more demanding today than it was last year, and it was more demanding last year than the year before,” he said.
“I’m just so worn out,” he added. “My heart, it’s giving at my heart all over the place.”
Zanis has since decided to hand over his work to Lutheran Charities and plans to travel to 135 churches around the country to teach them how to make the crosses.
“With the retirement of Greg, he has asked LCC to take over the ministry he started with Crosses For Losses,” Lutheran Charities said in a statement. “We have accepted to further all the fine work that Greg has done. We have worked side by side with Greg at many of the shootings, from Sandy Hook to today.”
So what’s next for Zanis?
Zanis, who said he’s now in $14,000 of debt, hopes to take time for himself and work on his 1927 Cadillac. But he will never truly give up his work.
“I can’t stop thinking about it,” Zanis said. “I think it was a calling and I found a way to pass it on.”